The University of Minnesota men's basketball team hasn't been any good since last century. As it turned out, that late-'90s vintage of the Gophers was aided in large part by the nice lady who wrote everyone's term papers. The scandal blew up in the school's face, and the resulting crater proved tricky for even a gopher to burrow his way out of.
Six years into the tenure of Tubby Smith, the champion coach hired from the University of Kentucky and the only likable thing named "Orlando," the program is still on the rebound. Tubby's teams have qualified for the NCAA tournament only twice ('09 and '10), but this year things are looking up.
Three weeks into the season, Minnesota stands at 7-1 and has sneaked into the Top 25, its only loss coming to undefeated Duke University.
After that stumble, Minnesota welcomed the return of Trevor Mbakwe, who had been waiting out a minor injury. An explosive power forward with an NBA-ready body, Mbakwe has too often made "SportsCenter" for the wrong reasons. In his sixth year of college and on his fourth or fifth second chance, he gives the Gophers a big, pounding pulse around the basket.
Joining him in the front court is Rodney Williams, the athletic, 6-foot-7 swingman who brings another dimension -- namely, the vertical one -- to the Gophers' offense. If you can't quite picture Williams, just watch near the rim; he's just about the only player in college basketball whose face gets up that high.
The breakout star, though, is Andre Hollins. A classic shoot-first, shoot-second point guard, the 6-foot-1 sophomore dropped 41 points in a win against Memphis and followed that with last-second free throws to beat Stanford. Hollins is the kind of brash scorer who thinks he got open at least a couple of times during the course of this paragraph.
The wins over Memphis and Stanford came at a quirky but prestigious new tournament based in the Bahamas. Aside from Duke, now No. 2 in the nation, Minnesota was the most impressive team at the Battle 4 Atlantis -- a tournament named for a "lost" golden city that, like the last great Minnesota teams, exists only in a memory based on myth.
But this? This seems very, very real.
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